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Arindam Chaudhuri, Editor-in-Chief, 4Ps B&M Chief Consulting Editor's Desk
Rajita Chaudhuri
K.K.Srivastava Guest Column
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A “different” way of building brand equity
More and more companies now realise that recruiting the differently-abled can be more than a CSR initiative, and can help build the brand and give an image boost to the employer.
Twenty-year-old Tamkin Khan greets you warmly with a friendly smile when you visit the Costa Coffee store, located in the tony Green Park area of New Delhi. Using expansive hand gestures, he can be seen ushering guests to their tables while politely gesturing others to wait if the tables are all taken. Guests are struck by Khan’s enthusiasm for his work and their admiration grows even deeper upon realising that he is both speech and hearing impaired. Khan has been working at the Costa Coffee outlet for the past three years and his employers vouch for the fact that in all these years he has never been late to work even once.

Like Khan, there are some more in the store. And that is what makes this Costa Coffee store stand apart. Five out of the eight personnel working at this outlet are differently-abled. In fact, the café chain is going all out to ensure that as many differently-abled people get to operate a majority of its stores across the country. It plans to open eight to nine new stores, which will be run entirely by differently-abled persons in the next one year. By the end of 2012, the company plans to run 20% of its stores across the country by differently-abled people. Not to be left out, Bangalore-based Café Coffee Day, from the stable of Amalgamated Bean Company Ltd, has tied up with an NGO called Enable India to hire about 100 such employees per year.

Like Costa Coffee, more and more companies in the country are now aggressively recruiting differently-abled people as they look to take their CSR initiatives farther beyond their usual goody two-shoes routine. Until about a few years ago, differently-abled people were only given low-end jobs like managing transport and admin tasks because it was believed that this was the limit of their abilities. But now companies have come to realise that recruiting the differently-abled can be more than a CSR initiative. It is actually about tapping into a vast pool of talented resources, which was earlier overlooked. As a result of this change in thinking, companies in increasing numbers are coming out to hire differently-abled people and integrating them into the mainstream. And once hired, they are not relegated to mere filing tasks – they are assigned roles depending on their qualifications and abilities, and have as much a shot at promotion and career advancement as any other capable resource would.

The hospitality industry, though it has been at the forefront of employing differently-abled people, has been content until now to deploy them mostly in back offices. However, in an encouraging change, many famous and prestigious brands are now bringing their differently-abled employees to the front-end of operations. According to ITC Hotels Vice President Deepak Haksar, “Our Bangalore property is a fine example where physically challenged people are employed in responsible positions and recognised for the same.” At ITC Hotels, differently-abled people are employed in core functions like finance, HR, housekeeping, reservations and concierge services. The company has over 250 differently-abled employees across all its hotels in the country. Like ITC, brands such as Costa Coffee and CCD believe that recruiting physically challenged people in more demanding and responsible positions is a progressive move that more than redounds to the company’s credit.

But do such CSR initiatives help in promoting the brand? “We do get lots of positive feedback from our customers who are very appreciative of our policy of employing differently-abled people in our force. We feel they bring value to our business and enhance our brand equity even though that’s not our intention for employing them,” says Santosh Unni, CEO, Costa Coffee India. Hospitality brand Lemon Tree, which has almost 60 differently-abled employees in its ranks, thinks employing them shows the organisation in a positive light and helps send a positive message across about corporates having a social conscience. The hotel chain is counting on taking the number of its differently-abled employees to at least 5% of its work force and plans to have 100 such employees by 2017. While such efforts by hospitality brands come across as a great CSR initiative, employing differently-abled people also offers the hospitality industry, which is facing talent crunch and high attrition rate (25% per annum according Federation of Hospitality & Restaurant Association of India), an alternate talent pool for its operations. CCD claims its differently-abled employees have been with them since recruitment and many of them have been working for the past five years.

“Special people are probably more committed towards work as they are more cautious and prescient of guests’ needs. Also, as we don’t have a kitchen and most of our business is on the front end and we are more than happy to let our differently-abled employees handle these jobs,” says Santosh Unni, CEO, Costa Coffee India. Another, hospitality major doing a yeoman’s job in recruiting differently-abled people is the fast food chain KFC. There is at least one KFC outlet in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata, in which about 70% of the employees are hearing-and-speech impaired. And if you ever entertained such misplaced notions that recruiting people with bodily limitations ran the risk of adversely impacting productivity and business, it’s time to junk such thoughts anon. The company says its outlets manned by differently-abled employees are amongst the most profitable of its stores and the realisation has spurred KFC to increase the number of such special employees at its outlets.

There are an estimated seven crore people in India with disabilities. However, only one lakh have been gainfully recruited in the past five decades. But even as more and more companies are beginning to realise the capabilities and value that these resources can add to an organization, it’s the private sector that now holds out promise for people with disabilities since – despite a 3% reservation – government jobs are not readily available. Fortunately, for India Inc, employing differently-abled people has become a sign of progressiveness and good CSR. And companies, realising the capabilities and value that these resources can add to an organization, now take pride in proclaiming that they have people with disabilities on board.
Angshuman Paul           
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